I was lucky enough to see Broadway Grand Rapids’s production of Hamilton last week. Since 2015, it’s been hard not to hear about Hamilton, from friends who loved it, in books that quote it, online in articles, even from the pulpit in sermon illustrations.
I intentionally went in as blind as I could, not listening to the music beforehand or looking up reviews, but of course I still couldn’t completely check at the door the expectations that I was walking into something amazing. Especially during the first few numbers, I could feel myself self-consciously setting expectations: This is just a show. A show tons of people love, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be five million times better than Wicked or Book of Mormon.
That said, Hamilton *is* amazing. The costumes, staging, and choreography are beautiful, and as a retelling of America’s founding myth with a focus on immigration, racial justice, and who gets to write history, I quickly understood why American audiences lose their minds over Hamilton. Paired with the heavy influences of hip-hop and R&B and the intentional anachronisms in the lyrics (see: congressional debates as rap battles. If only we lived in a world where Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer worked out their disputes through spoken word), the show helps make the story of America’s founding feel relatable and relevant, and it asks pointed questions about what America was supposed to be, and what we should try to make out of America in the twenty-first century.
In terms of storytelling, what stood out most to me was the deft juggling of different story lines and the snappy pacing between each plotline. The musical weaves together the political concerns of Revolutionary America with the horrors of war as well as Hamilton’s personal life, which included a mass of career ambition, complicated family relations and scandal, and traumatic grief. Most of the songs focused sharply on one particular moment, emotion, or concern (say the Seige of Yorktown, or Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler’s courtship, or the loss of their son), but the show moves briskly enough from song to song (and plotline to plotline) to keep the whole thing moving forward, and the interconnections between all the different aspects of Hamilton’s life are drawn out enough to make it cohesive.
In terms of writing, I was also struck by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s use of rhyme and repetition. He “rhymes” a lot of words with the exact same word—sometimes three or four times in a row. This was historically considered a no-no in British poetry (the poetry I studied most closely in school), and I typically discourage fiction writers I edit from repeating words too often in their prose. But Miranda uses repetition to create patterns, contrasts between characters, and emotional themes that resonate throughout the show. I’m not sure how one would “translate” the effects Miranda creates with repetition in prose fiction, but there’s clearly a lot about pacing and rhythm that I can learn from his work.
Of course Hamilton isn’t without flaws. Perhaps most frustrating to me was that, despite Angelica’s early declaration of equality between women and men in the number “The Schuyler Sisters,” the female characters in the show are repeatedly relegated to the domestic sphere, their lives subsumed to the men they love, their greatest accomplishments limited to the advancement of their husbands’ careers and legacies. Hamilton doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, unfortunately. However, that doesn’t mean that the storytelling, staging, and music aren’t fantastic. I will be listening to the soundtrack and mulling over the characters and questions Hamilton asks about politics, privilege, and responsibility for a long time to come.